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Zine Distribution:
Negotiating the Labyrinth
by David Hirschi
excerpted from Punk Planet

Don't be naive. The rules of distribution were not made to work for you. They were made to benefits retailers (mostly the chainstores) and glossy mainstream publications like Fish & Stream. These rules revolve on regular publishing schedules and the destruction of unsold copies by the retailer. The system was created long before the advent of zines. This creates the old political dilemma: is it better to work within the system or from without? You have to answer this for yourself, so arm yourself with all the information you can get. The best source is going to be from other publishers.
Distribution is also predicated upon volume: moving the largest number of units through the warehouse in the shortest amount of time. Your zine becomes just one more unit in the flow. It isn't special. It gets thrown into the box and shipped off the same as any other magazine. Unsold copies will be destroyed by the retailer like any other magazine. You're going to be put in line to be paid along with hundreds of other magazines. Your baby is going to be swallowed up.
That said, fortunately some distributors are flexible enough to bend the rules, and this you'll find out by asking around. Talk with other publishers who are working with several distributors. Choose a few distributors after you've done your homework and send a couple issues and a cover letter to their buyers (see Dan's article for more detail about this). When you get to the point of negotiating terms with a distributor, you won't know what they may be flexible about unless you ask. Distribution terms include 1) when you'll get paid, 2) what percentage off the cover price the distributor takes and 3) how they report unsold copies to you. Feel free to attempt to negotiate any of these points. You, too, are going to have to be flexible though. Distribution is a dialog between publishers, retailers and the distributor, each of which has their own concerns. More on dialog later.
Once you're in the system, there are ways to keep from being gobbled up. Don't rely on the distributor to let you know what these ways are. This is not from lack of concern on the distributor's part or because distributors are somehow evil incarnate. The distributor gets the smallest piece of the pie. In order to survive on the small margin they get, they have to push volume through their warehouses and, especially true of the smaller distributors who are flexible enough to agree to distribute zines, are usually understaffed, and what little staff there is, is underpaid and extremely harried. What this means is you'll have to come down from the ivory tower of the embattled artist and roll in the muck of business a bit by following up on payments and sales. Here's how you do it:
First, get a calendar. According to the terms you worked out with your distributor make a note in your calendar on the days you're supposed to be paid. If you don't get a check within a week of that date, give the distributor a call (and another call and another call until you get the check). Do this for every issue you ship. Note carefully: distributor payments are triggered by their receipt of subsequent issues. If you put your distributor on hold because of slow payments, you need to let them know, otherwise your payment may never come up on their computer.
Ask your distributor for a distribution list. This will show you where your magazine is going and will come in handy if people ask where to find your magazine and will also give a clue as to whether or not your title has been adequately promoted by the distributor. If you don't feel that it has, call your distributor and find out what promotions they do and ask if you can be a part of it. For example, most distributors will routinely mail out publisher-supplied flyers to their retail accounts to promote a title.
Once you've shipped your third issue to a distributor, ask your distributor to do a sell-through report. This will show the distributor who's selling and who's not. If your sales have fallen below 50 percent of the amount you shipped, you may ask your distributor to put your account on manual order adjustment meaning that they will adjust the orders the retailers have given for your title to a number which more closely resembles actual sales. Don't be premature with this request. Distributors will have no idea of sales for a particular issue until at least a month or two after they have shipped out the next issue.
Being in the middle is not an easy place to be. Distribution is a balancing act between the expectations of publishers and the needs of newsstands. Yet it is this middle path a distributor must trod if they are to do the job well. Unfortunately, most publishers don't understand that the distributor is performing this balancing act every minute of every day amid the clamor of getting the magazines out of the warehouse. From where I sit (my desk looks out over our warehouse), I know how hard we work to do what we do. I don't expect publishers to know this, but I do expect them to listen. The distribution system is indeed flawed. Yet as flawed as it is, it is the system we have for getting magazines into as may people's hands as possible. I believe that the only hope for negotiating through this web with some success is dialog: you tell me your concerns, I tell you mine, and hopefully we discover together a common ground from which to begin. Once begun, the dialog must continue. New problems will always arise. That's simply the nature of the beast. I believe that this dialog is essential if integrity is to become a part of the system.
Unfortunately dialog will sometimes completely break down, in which case it's time to terminate the relationship. Personally, though, I do not think that those hopeless cases should mean we don't bother with attempting dialog if we can. To find out that a problem exists third-hand, through a nasty article in a zine or via a zines newsgroup, is not much of an incentive to communication, being as it is a one-sided bitch without much constructive use. Easy to be a sonofabitch when protected from response. Dialog is lost. Email replaces discourse. Our ability to affect change is diminished.
Perhaps naively I feel that the written word has the power for change and that the zine explosion is essential to feed a hunger for stories other than the ones we are force-fed by corporate media. (I actually don't watch television or read newspapers anymore. Instead I read through huge stacks of zines and small press and feel my world is better reflected.) What is needed is a re-visioning of the written word and how best to disseminate that new vision, without hampering that dissemination by misguided correct politics. Don't waste your time doing another music magazine with cute personal stories. Be courageous enough to develop your own voice.
The corporate media has powerful distribution engines in place for propagating its message. If it is possible to counter the corporate media's investment in keeping us paranoid through nightly visions of terror and violence brought to us courtesy of the local news, then we must take advantage of the possibility however it presents itself, including working within the system and attempting to resolve apparent conflicts through dialog.

This article appeared in Punk Planet #16, January/February 1997. © 1997 David Hirschi. Posted with permission. Hirschi was a buyer for Desert Moon Periodicals.

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